Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Isabella Stewart Gardner

Many of the women profiled in the America's Notable Women Series had one thing in common. They didn't care what other people thought of them. This is huge. How many times have you not done something for fear of failing or looking ridiculous? Certainly not Isabella Stewart Gardner. In fact, she welcomed disapproval.

Isabella was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 into wealth and privilege. She learned early on that an elevated station in life couldn't stop bad things from happening when her little sister Adelia died. The death of a child was not an unusual occurrence in 1853, but the family's coping mechanism was. They moved to France, where they lived from 1856 through 1858. Isabella attended finishing school in Paris. She became friends with a girl who would introduce her to John "Jack" Lowell Gardner, Jr.

Isabella and Jack married in 1860 and settled in Boston. In June 1863, Isabella gave birth to John "Jackie" Lowell Gardner III. She was blissfully in love with her Jack and Jackie. Life couldn't have been any better, but those happy days were numbered. Baby Jackie died of pneumonia in March 1864 and Isabella plunged into a severe depression.

Isabella was inconsolable for nearly two years. Upon her phycisian's advice, Jack took Isabella to Europe. Like her mother before her, she found solace in travel. She returned to America a healthy, happy woman.

By this time, Isabella was known as Mrs. Jack and she was determined to live life on her terms. Essentially, her terms were the more outrageous, the better. At a time when women (especially women of her standing) were expected to be proper ladies, Isabella was drinking beer and racing her car around town. She loved sports and went to boxing matches, football games and baseball games. She had two diamonds fastened to springs and wore them like antennae. Talk about bling-bling.

Boston society rejected her, but since her friends were artists, suffragists and professors she didn't give a hoot. She inspired several characters in Henry James's books, and John Singer Sargent painted her portrait. (I love the contrast between the Sargent portrait above, done in 1888, and the one below done in 1922.)

Boston's rumor mill ran rampant around Isabella. One story had Isabella walking a lion on a leash. Isabella often said, "Don't spoil a good story by telling the truth." That's one way to keep people talking. Stunts are another. Isabella once spent an evening with the Brahmins listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She was impeccably dressed and exquisitely coiffed. She had fashioned a white headband around her red hair. Upon the band she'd written these words in red: Oh you Red Sox! The resultant stares, snickers and gasps were exactly what she wanted.

Isabella could have gone on like this forever. With her money she could have been the poster girl for the idle rich. Instead, she found her passion and pursued it relentlessly. She collected art. In 1917, she wrote to a friend, "Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our country was art."

Her collection included important paintings, sculptures, silver, tapestries, rare books and more. She put together one of America's first great art collections, and then designed a building in which to house this collection. Fenway Court was built to resemble an Italian palace. She personally supervised the placement of every last piece, and then took up residence in an apartment on the fourth floor. She opened her home to the public, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was born.

Isabella died at Fenway Court on June 17, 1924 but she remains an ever-present force within the walls of Fenway Court. Isabella ordered that all the art work must remain exactly as she arranged it. If it is moved or changed in any way, the entire collection must be sold. The museum appears much the same today as it did the day it opened.

In a way, Isabella is still turning heads. In 1990, two thieves dressed as police officers overpowered the guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art valued at around 300 million dollars. Despite a 5 million dollar reward, the art work has yet to be recovered, and remains the largest art heist in modern history. I don't know if Isabella is rolling over in her grave, or loving all the attention.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mentor Monday--Specificity

Specificity--what a lovely word! I love the way it sounds, but better yet, I love what it means for a writer--to explicitly set forth.

Many who want to write for kids lack specificity. They may write about a bird. They may even call it a brown bird, but how much better would it be for the readers, if the writer said it was a house sparrow?

If you write a story that has a brown bird in it, one child may think of a female robin while another may think of pigeon. Why not say what you mean? If you mean a barred owl then state it.

Photo by Michael Hodge

Kids may not yet have a college education, but they do know more than we sometimes give them credit for. Surely they know an owl from a sparrow. And if they don't know, they can always look it up!

Barred owl
a large owl, Strix varia, of eastern North America, having its breast barred and abdomen streaked with dark brown.

Not convinced? What do you think of when I say "yellow flower"? If you thought daffodil then that implies a season that's completely different than if I were thinking of a chrysanthemum--fall, or a sunflower--summer.

Or try this. I say "a horrible smell." How many different sources of horrible smells are there? Hundreds, probably--dog poop, burnt popcorn, melting plastic, a rotting squirrel carcass, boiled Brussels Sprouts, etc.

Being specific doesn't mean being overly wordy. It means giving your readers the information they need!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Sharing--Digital Library Collections

I found a place to go to if you, like me, love old photos, and other interesting things. It's from the American Library Association I Love Libraries site and it highlights digital collections from libraries everywhere. Click here to start. You'll find collections of photos and more, such as postcards, maps, and vintage posters. For example, there's a link to the University of Virginia Art Museum Numismatic Collection where you can see ancient Greek and Roman coins. Or, there's the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies collection of oral history audio and video interviews. Of special interest to children's writers is the link to the International Children's Digital Library. This is from the Mission Statement on the ICDL homepage:
The mission of the International Children’s Digital Library Foundation is to excite and inspire the world's children to become members of the global community–-children who understand the value of tolerance and respect for diverse cultures, languages and ideas--by making the best in children's literature available online.
Check out the ICDL, and by all means, check out the I Love Libraries digital libraries section.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Women of Wednesday: The Saturday Evening Girls

So, okay. Not Women. Not Wednesday.

The Saturday Evening Girls got their start during the late 19th century -- due to the convergence of three movements. The Settlement House movement began in London as a way to help the poor -- to give them food, shelter, and a way to make a living. In the US, the name most associated with this movement is Chicago's Jane Addams.

The women's movement focused more attention on women's economic and social needs. The Arts and Crafts movement was also getting its start. It emphasized pride in craftsmanship as people searched for an antidote to the mass produced goods of the Industrial Revolution.

The Saturday Evening Girls started in 1899 as a club through the Boston Public Library that provided education and social activities for young immigrant girls. Local philanthropists hoped their contribution would keep girls off the streets. Many girls had to work to provide an income for their families, which meant no time for school.

Under the guidance of Edith Brown and Edith Guerrier, with assistance from Helen Storrow, the group eventually turned to making and selling pottery as a way to pay for the organization's summer camps.

The small business was called Paul Revere Pottery for the group's proximity to the historic location in the North End where Paul Revere worked his silver one hundred years earlier.

The club helped young women develop not only the skills of decorating pottery, but also business skills to go along with it. Local department stores and other retail ventures bought the girls' lovely pieces..

According to the Museum of Fine Arts, volunteers read to the girls as they worked. One mug is inscribed "In the forest must always be a nightingale & in the soul a faith so faithful that it comes back even after it has been slain," a verse from the 1910 play Chantecler by Edmond Rostand."

The MFA provides this review from writer Margaret Pendleton in 1910: "The glaze is dull, soft in color and texture…The colors are pure yellow, soft green, old blue and a tan. Their success in color scheme is wonderful." The girls decorated children's pottery and kitchen sets.

The most accomplished of the SEG was Sara Galner.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a collection of Saturday Evening Girls' pottery, and has this to say about Sara:

"The vast majority of works in the collection were decorated by one of the Pottery's best artists, Sara Galner, the mother of the collection's donor. Galner, a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary, joined the reading club as a young girl and later worked at the Pottery until her marriage. Objects bearing her signature span at least ten years, including some of the earliest years of the Pottery's production and the height of their artistic achievement and success in the mid-1910s. Examples of her work show the Pottery's efforts to refine both materials and technique, as well as Galner's own refinement and maturity as an artist."

Paul Revere Pottery operated until the 1940s.

You can read more about the Saturday Night Girls at the MFA by clicking here

When you get to the page, click on the Interactive Exhibition Preview near the top of the page.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mentor Monday: Murder Your Darlings

I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.

--Mark Twain

When I was first learning my craft, I wasn't fond of following assigned word counts. It was important to tell my story in my way. That included using as many words as I needed.

It wasn't long afterward that I learned that less is actually more – much more.

As Twain alluded to, it's very, very easy to write something long. To write tight you need to pare your words so each earns its place. This helps eliminate redundancy. Say it perfectly one time, you don't need to say it again.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch suggested you 'murder your darlings'. I don't necessarily advocate that – you might wipe out something really good. But, sometimes there are small edits you can make that distill your writing into something tight and highly readable.

This is Quiller-Couch.

Some suggest cutting your manuscript by 10%. That means if you have a thousand words, cut 100 of them. Impossible? Perhaps, but try it anyway.

This cutting is the part I especially like – at this point, I know I'm almost done. It's a challenge to see if I can do away with the words not earning their place in my prose.

Case in point: this article started out at 540 words, but with some judicious editing, I've gotten it down to 275.

I'd make it even shorter, but don't have time.

For more suggestions on writing tight and other writing tips, type in Mentor Monday in the search box at the top of this blog.

Or go here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poetry Friday: No Rainbows Here

Barb pointed out last week that one can read only so many poems about rainbows, clouds and crashing waves. I couldn't agree more, which is why I'm offering a flower poem for mid-April.

To an Early Daffodil
by Amy Lowell
Thou yellow trumpeter of laggard Spring!
Thou herald of rich Summer's myriad flowers!
The climbing
sun with new recovered powers
Does warm thee into being, through the ring
Of rich, brown ear
th he woos thee, makes thee fling
Thy green shoots up, inheriting the dowers

Of bending sky and sudden, sweeping showers,
Till ripe and blossoming thou art a thing

To make all nature glad, thou art so gay;
To fill the lonely with a joy untold;
Nodding at every gust of wind to-day,
To-morrow jewelled with raindrops. Always bold
To stand erect, full in the dazzling play
Of April's sun, for thou hast caught his gold.

This week's Poetry Roundup can be found at Becky's Book Reviews.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Women of...Wednesday--Suffering Indignities

We live in a far more progressive era than did our mothers and grandmothers. Not that long ago, women were considered to be inferior to men. Simply because they weren't male, they did not inherit land or money. They weren't allowed to make decisions. They could not spend their own wages! Suffragist Lucy Stone noted, "If a woman earned a dollar by scrubbing, her husband had a right to take the dollar and go and get drunk with it and beat her afterwards. It was his dollar."

Women were refused the vote because they were mentally incapable of making an informed decision! Nowadays we're still fighting to prove women are capable of becoming leaders.

The list of past insults and indignities to women goes on and on. And, just in case you think I exaggerate, let me relate an indignity suffered by Florence Bascom, the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Florence Bascom was born in 1862. The daughter of educators, Florence excelled in her studies. She graduated from high school at the age of 15 and from the University of Wisconsin with two bachelor's degrees. Shortly thereafter, she earned a third. After gaining her master's degree in science, she wanted to continue her studies in geology at Johns Hopkins University. At the time, no woman had earned a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. It was reported that Florence had to sit behind a screen in the classroom so as not to distract the men!

Let me conclude this little rant with another quote by Lucy Stone, "Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things."


Monday, April 13, 2009

Mentor Monday: Take Care When You Slice Up Life

Fledgling writers will often confuse a charming vignette for an entire story. This can happen when a writer is primarily inspired by her or his own parenting experiences. S/he is so completely in baby-love that every last thing the child does is a source of endless wonder and fascination. Who could have imagined that an untended bowl of pretzels would be selflessly shared with the family pooch? Just about anybody with a dog and a kid, that's who.

Slice-of-life stories aren't plot-heavy. Either nothing much happens, or one big (or not-so-big) thing happens, with nothing leading up to it or away from it. There's no beginning, middle or end. There's nothing to be resolved because there's no conflict. When an editor refers to a story as "quiet," this very well could be what s/he's talking about.

A story culled directly from life is usually missing that little twist which moves it beyond the ordinary. Without that twist, it's more of a reminiscence. It becomes a "remember when" moment floating around in search of an anchor. Remember when the baby shared an entire bag of pretzels with Bowzer and then they both puked on the rug? That was funny. Maybe. To some people. Humor is subjective, after all. (I think the pretzel "story" begs the question, Where were you, Mom and Dad, and aren't you glad the baby didn't share that carton of rat poison you left under the kitchen sink?)

If you're going to do a "remember when" type of tale give it a twist. Better yet, bend it completely out of proportion to the original event. Your original vs. twisted tale might look something like this.

Original: Remember when David took that cookie out of the cookie jar when he wasn't supposed to?
Twisted: Remember when David stood on the chair and climbed up to the top shelf to get the glass cookie jar you so foolishly thought was safe from his reach?

Original: Remember when David tracked mud across the living room rug?
Twisted: Remember when David was covered in dirt and had mushrooms growing out of his scalp and he tracked an entire garden across the living room rug?

Original: Remember when David took a bath and the tub overflowed?
Twisted: Remember when David took a bath, flooded the bathroom, scared his rubber ducky witless, then ran naked down the street?

Original: Remember how you wanted to just let him go but you had to chase him and catch him because if you didn't you'd be in trouble with the authorities?
Twisted: Remember how you still loved David even though he was the spawn of Satan?

(My apologies to David Shannon.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Although Saturday is the day for sharing, I couldn't resist sharing this today!

my pimped pic!

You can "pimp" your own photos for free here. A word of warning: it's addictive and a real time waster! But hey, the Easter Bunny would want you to have a little fun!


Sunday Sharing--PDFs

If you have a website you may put up materials for use by teachers in classrooms. Doing this is an added incentive for teachers to use your books, and to recommend them to other teachers. A word of advice--not every teacher has the same version of Microsoft Word as the one you used in creating your worksheets. If you put up a document on your site that was created in Vista, and the teacher is using XP, she may not be able to open the document. The solution is to put your document in PDF format.

PDF? Doesn't that require costly software? It could, or, you could use the Open Office suite I mentioned last week. Open Office Writer software enables you to save a document in PDF format.

If you don't want to download the whole shebang, you can go to this site, CutePDF. Click on the CutePDF Writer (Freeware) to download a PDF program for free.

The teacher who wants to download your teacher resources can now do so. Undoubtedly she already has Adobe Reader on her computer. If you wish, you could put a link on your site to Adobe just to be on the safe side.

One more thing, if you're putting your worksheets online, for goodness sake, make sure you give yourself credit!


Friday, April 10, 2009

Poetry Friday

Formal Application
(in which a poet attempts to become Modern Man)

I shall begin by learning to throw
the knife, first at trees, until it sticks
in the trunk and quivers every time;

next from a chair, using only wrist
and fingers, at a thing on the ground,
a fresh ant hill or a fallen leaf,

then at a moving object, perhaps
a pieplate swinging on twine, until
I pot it at least twice in three tries.

Meanwhile, I shall be teaching the birds
that the skinny fellow in sneakers
is a source of suet and bread crumbs,

first putting them on a shingle nailed
to a pine tree, next scattering them
on the needles, closer and closer

to my seat, until the proper bird,
a towhee, I think, in black and rust
and gray, takes tossed crumbs six feet away.

Finally, I shall coordinate
conditioned reflex and functional
form and qualify as Modern Man.

You see the splash of blood and feathers
and the blade pinning it to the tree?
It’s called an “Audubon Crucifix.”

The phrase has pleasing (even pious)
connotations, like Arbeit Macht Frei,
“Molotov Cocktail,” and Enola Gay.

Donald W. Baker
This weeks Poetry Roundup is being hosted by Carol's Corner

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Women Of Wednesday - Granny D. Haddock

Sometimes in life, we come across things we know just aren’t right. We might voice our opinions, or complain, or say “What a shame,” but then we generally go on about our business and the wrong is never righted. At least, not by most of us. Thankfully, there are people who aren’t like most of us. These people actually do something. Doris Haddock, better known as Granny D., is one of those people.

Granny D. was born in 1910 in Laconia, NH. She was named Ethel Doris Rollins. Her family called her Doris. She had a typical childhood and at 17, she went off to Emerson College in Boston, MA. She wanted to become an actress. While there, she met Jim Haddock and fell in love. They wanted to marry, but being a married woman in college was frowned upon in those days, particularly at Emerson College. The thought was that a married woman would soon have babies and leave, and the time invested in them would be wasted. Women would not go on to greatness and lend prestige to their college’s name.

But even then, Doris had the courage to do what she believed in. She and Jim married anyway in a secret ceremony at Trinity Church in Boston. Eventually, the Dean of Emerson College found out and she was expelled.

Doris and Jim settled down in NH and raised a family. For the next thirty years, she once again lived an ordinary life. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and while she was living peacefully through the post-war era, the Atomic Energy Commission was busy trying to find a peaceful use for their latest invention - the nuclear bomb. They’d been testing nuclear bombs throughout the ‘50’s and they just knew there had to be something they could do with them.

One idea was to dig canals. Just drop a bomb and voila! The digging was done! But would it work? They decided to drop six bombs on Point Hope, Alaska, to find out. The Inuit, of course, were very concerned, but the government assured them that the bombs wouldn’t harm them, nor would the fallout. They wouldn’t even feel any seismic shock, and the fish and seals they hunted would be perfectly fine to eat.

The Inuit knew a lie when they heard one. The bombs their government was proposing to drop were 600 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And they wanted to drop 6! The Inuit needed help.

Back in NH, some friends dropped in on the Haddocks. They had been in Alaska and had heard about the situation. They told Doris and Jim. Doris was now 50. Her two children were grown. She and Jim immediately drove to Alaska to learn the facts for themselves and found it was all true. They drove home and spread the word. They called politicians and scientists. They wrote letters and pamphlets. They told everyone who would listen. Eventually, the Atomic Energy Commission was thoroughly embarrassed and gave up. (Read The Firecracker Boys by Dan O'Neil for the whole story.)

Once again, Doris went back to her everyday life. She continued working at her job as a Production Cost Estimator in Manchester, NH until 1972, when she retired at age 62. She and Jim moved to Dublin, NH and Jim soon became ill with Alzheimer’s Disease. Doris cared for him until he died, and then her health, too, began to fail.

By the mid 1990’s, campaign finance reform had become a popular topic among some politicians and political activists. They wanted to get big business out of government but they weren’t having any luck. Not enough people cared. But Doris did, and Doris, being Doris, did something about it. In 1999, at the age of 88, with emphysema and arthritis, she decided to walk across America and spread the word.

She started on January 1,1999 in Pasadena, CA and walked at least ten miles a day, regardless of the weather, regardless of how well she could breathe or how bad her bones ached. She talked to people along the way and encouraged them to make their voices heard. On February 29th, 2000, she reached Washington, DC. She was 90 years old.

But age, illness, and a 3200 mile walk didn't slow her down. Two months later, while gathered peacefully in the Capitol Rotunda, she gave a speech about the right to free speech and the right to assemble peacefully. The Capitol Police handcuffed and arrested her for Disorderly Conduct. Someone obviously didn’t want this 90 year old woman to speak. At 94, she ran for the US Senate and lost. Since then, she has continued speaking, trying to get more Americans involved in their own government. This past January, she celebrated her 99th birthday.

Can you imagine what this country might be like if we all did something when our hearts told us something wasn’t right? Can you imagine what the world might be like if the silent majority refused to be silent? Granny D. doesn't imagine it. She just goes out and does it. Way to go, Granny!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mentor Monday - Props

We all know what props are. Charlie Chaplin had his hat and cane, Maxwell Smart had his shoe phone, and Harry Potter had his wand. A prop can be anything at all - clothes, food, tools, animals, even another person. If it exists in your character’s world, then it can be used as a prop.

The most obvious use for a prop is to tell us what your character does. Harry’s wand lets the reader know he’s a wizard, so we can expect to see some magic. The kind of wand he has also tells us what kind of person he is. Harry’s wand is sturdy and strong and similar to Lord Voldemort’s, so we can expect it to be powerful, which makes him powerful. Ron’s wand, on the other hand, is a hand-me-down, and at one point, broken and taped back together. We don’t expect any serious magic to come from it, or Ron. Ron’s wand relegates him to sidekick and comic relief status.

How your character treats their prop also discloses information. A teen-age girl with a brand new hot pink cell phone might spend more time wiping her fingerprints off the phone than using it, or she might toss it wherever when she’s not using it. A poor child living in a home with a broken window stuffed with newspaper might complain about it, live with it, or try to fix it. Each option creates a different type of character.

Props also help create emotion in your story, and in your reader. Let’s say Jack has been stuck in detention for something he didn’t do. When he finally gets out, he misses the bus home and has to walk. It starts to rain. Every step makes him madder and more aggravated. He reaches home and checks the mailbox for an invitation to Tommy’s pool party. It isn’t there and he realizes he hasn’t been invited. He opens the door and sacks out on the couch and thinks about what a lousy day he had. Pete was a jerk for getting him in trouble, and Mrs. White was unfair in giving him detention, and why’d it have to rain anyway.

What is Jack feeling in this scene? Well, he might be mad or he might be feeling sad, or disappointed. It isn’t quite clear. And what did you feel reading it? Probably not a whole lot.

Now add a prop. We’ll give him a dog. So now, after all his travails, he opens the door and there’s his dog, tongue lolling, tail wagging, behind wriggling, eager for some love.

Jack kicks the dog.

Now what do we know about Jack’s feelings? We know he’s not only mad, but he also has a cruel streak in him, which wasn’t evident in the previous scene. And what did you feel? Did you smile at the dog’s description? Were you taken aback when Jack kicked it?

Jack could just as easily have knelt down and hugged the dog, which would have created a different emotion in him and the reader, and would have shown him as a different kind of person. In any case, using the dog as a prop helps show who Jack is in a more effective way than the writer saying, ‘Jack could be a cruel boy when he got angry.’ Or, ‘No matter how angry Jack got, his dog could always cheer him up.’

And finally, props keep your story moving. If we go back to the above examples, nothing is really happening as Jack lies on the couch. He whines and feels sorry for himself, but that’s about it. Once you add a prop to a scene, it forces yours characters to act and react because the prop is tangible. It’s there and has to be dealt with. If Jack had walked in the door and ignored the dog completely, (which is a reaction) it still would have added more to the scene and his characterization than if the dog hadn’t been there at all.

The whole purpose of a prop is support. It aids and helps, whether in the real world or in fiction. Find one in your character’s world and put it to use. Even imaginary characters can use a little help now and then.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Sharing--Visual Presentations

If you're a writer and do school or library visits, you may want to develop a Powerpoint presentation. You probably don't need a projector of your own since many schools and libraries own that equipment, but you do need software to put together your presentation. If you don't have Microsoft Office, then you might think you're out of luck. The software isn't cheap! Take heart--there's a free office suite available through Open Office. This from the Open Office site:
the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.
The Impress portion will enable you to create your own multi-media presentations. I created an adequate one, without too much difficulty, and I expect, with a little more practice I could create one that is REALLY good! And the only thing it cost me, was a little time!


Friday, April 3, 2009

Poetry Friday: Spring poems

It's gray and gloomy today, but this week my morning walks have been filled with birdsong - the most beautiful of poems, but impossible to post!

Instead, I offer these two classics:

APRIL - An altered look about the hills by Emily Dickinson

An altered look about the hills;

A Tyrian light the village fills;

A wider sunrise in the dawn;

A deeper twilight on the lawn;

A print of a vermilion foot;

A purple finger on the slope;

A flippant fly upon the pane;

A spider at his trade again;

An added strut in chanticleer;

A flower expected everywhere;

An axe shrill singing in the woods;

Fern-odors on untravelled roads,

All this, and more I cannot tell,

A furtive look you know as well,

And Nicodemus' mystery

Receives its annual reply.

Answer to a Child's Question
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Do you ask what the birds say?

The sparrow, the dove,

The linnet and thrush say,

"I love and I love!"

In the winter they're silent - the wind is so strong;

What it says, I don't know, but it sings a loud song.

But green leaves, and blossoms, and sunny warm weather,

And singing, and loving - all come back together.

But the lark is so brimful of gladness and love,

The green fields below him, the blue sky above,

That he sings, and he sings; and forever sings he -

"I love my Love, and my Love loves me!"

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau

One of the decisions we made early in the process of planning the book Women of Granite was that we would not include women whose primary “claim to fame” was her relationship with a famous man. It was a perfectly good criteria, not one I objected to then or now. But it points, obliquely, to one very real fact about our roles as women: as mothers and as wives, we may make our most lasting contributions to the world by the influence we have on our children and the support we provide to both spouses and children as they go out into the world. In an earlier day when women were restricted in their professional lives, this role was of even greater significance – and so we have profiled people like Dolly Madison, for example.

One such woman was Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, mother of Henry David Thoreau, he of Walden fame. Cynthia was a New Hampshire girl, born in Keene in 1787. I can claim her as a relative (my second cousin, 7 times removed) so I might call her “Aunt Cynthia”. I honor her today not simply for her own life’s work but also in honor of the many women who made great things possible by just doing the tasks of their ordinary lives. Many of these lived and died and disappeared, even their names lost to history. Yet they, too, are part of us.

Cynthia Dunbar’s father, the Rev. Asa Dunbar, died when Cynthia was just a month old. Her mother Mary managed alone for quite some time (in 1795 she took her three daughters by sloop to Frenchman’s Bay in Maine to visit her brother). In 1798, Cynthia’s mother married again and the family moved to the Capt. Jonas Minott farm in Concord, Mass. Concord is familiar territory as I have spent a lot of time researching Louisa May Alcott, a more famous Concord girl. The Thoreau family moved to Concord shortly thereafter, so Cynthia Dunbar and John Thoreau probably knew each other as they were growing up. They married in 1812, she already 4 months pregnant.

Like Bronson and Abba Alcott, the Thoreau family moved around quite a bit in the early years of their marriage, mostly for financial reasons. Cynthia had four children in seven years, David Henry being the third. During those same seven years she moved house at least four times and for a while ran a dry goods store in Chelmsford while John worked as a sign painter. All the while keeping house and cooking meals for a growing family. Young David recalled details such as a cow coming into the entryway of the house to get at some pumpkin, and himself being bowled over by a hen and cutting his foot. And I think MY life is a bit stressful?

The family finally arrived back in Concord to stay in 1823 but renting a number of places before they were able to build a home in 1844 and then, finally purchase a larger home in 1850. John eventually became a manufacturer of pencils, utilizing graphite that Cynthia’s brother Charles had discovered up in Bristol, NH. The firm of Dunbar and Stow became known for a quality product.

Through all this, Cynthia and John built strong family ties among their children. They were readers who valued education, taught their children to play instruments, and encouraged their interests in the natural world. John was quiet and introverted and taught his children to observe the details of the world around them. Cynthia was outspoken, opinionated and sociable. She was known as a good homemaker and hostess. In addition to taking in boarders for income, she often brought the less-fortunate into her home for meals. She was active in the Concord Ladies Anti-slavery Society and made her Concord home a stop on the Underground Railroad.

We can readily see her influence on young David Henry before he entered Harvard in 1833. His older siblings, both teachers, contributed toward his tuition payments. We don’t know why he switched the order of his names upon graduation, but I know from research of others in the era that it was certainly not uncommon. After returning to Concord he lived for a while at home, then with the Emersons for a while, out in his cabin at Walden, of course, but eventually returning to his mother’s house, where he died in 1862. His accomplishments are well known to history.

Cynthia outlived all her children but the youngest, Sophia, dying in 1872 just two months short of her 85th birthday. Her elder son, John Jr., died horribly of lockjaw (tetanus) after “a slight cut of his thumb” at only 27. Henry came home to die in 1862. The next year Cynthia fell down the stairs and shattered her right arm. After some months in bed she did regain her ability to walk, but never the use of her arm. As her eyesight was failing she could no longer read much either, yet her daughter Sophia (another unsung hero, who worked to get Henry's writing collect and published after his death, and cared for her mother throughout her life) reported “notwithstanding her infirmities, she is ever cheerful.” In 1871 Sophia wrote that her mother was “greatly blessed in retaining with rare vigor, all her faculties.” And when Cynthia died a year later, Sophia observed “Dear mother was in her bed three weeks. She retained full possession of all her faculties to the last. The vigor & activity of her mind was truly wonderful. Her bodily infirmities she bore as she had done for many years, & the Lord granted a gentle exit. A rare beauty came to her in death, I wish you could have seen her as she lay like a queen, bedecked with costly flowers, the tokens of friendship & respect....”

And so, hail to you, Aunt Cynthia, and the countless others like you, whose lives spin out in days of giving, living and loving. Women of Worth!